When Marie’s* boyfriend of two years told her that he wanted a short break from their relationship to figure himself out, she panicked. “He didn’t want to end things with me, which left me even more confused,” says the 32-year-old graphic designer. “He said that the problem was with him, not me, and when I asked him how much time he needed exactly, he said he didn’t know. I was upset because I didn’t want us to break up.
After six weeks apart, the pair reunited. Both decided that they couldn’t be without each other and so re-established their relationship. It turns out that Marie’s boyfriend needed time alone to decide what he really wanted for himself and work out how Marie would fit into his future. He wanted to marry her but was under financial stress and didn’t think that he would be able to provide for her. In the end, he realised that he couldn’t run away from his love for her. The couple’s time apart only strengthened their connection and reinforced their resolve to plan a future together.
In Sharon’s* case, the ending was very different – and not as happy. “When Michael* suggested we take a little break because he needed time to decide what he wanted out of our relationship, I gave it to him. One month, to be exact,” says the 29-year-old banker. “That’s when I found out that he was dating someone new. He’d met this woman months earlier and wanted to leave me for her, but didn’t know how to go about it without upsetting me. A need for ‘space’ was the perfect excuse to play the field. He should have just broken up with me instead of leaving me hanging for a whole month. I honestly believed that he needed time alone to work out what he wanted.”
What does “I want some space” mean?
When your boyfriend tells you that he needs a little space or time away from you but doesn’t want to break up, what exactly is he trying to say? If he truly loved you, why would he choose to be apart from you?
“When a guy says that he needs space, in many cases he is drained by the relationship,” says Karla Moore, a dating coach from NineGPS, a matchmaking company based in Atlanta in the US. “There is likely some kind of conflict going on in the relationship, and he feels embroiled in it.” And, when he feels stuck, his first instinct is usually to remove himself from the situation. Away from the demands and expectations of a relationship, he might feel that he would be in a better place to calculate his next move.
What could he be feeling conflicted about? Karla says it’s usually down to one of three things:
- It’s someone else: Another woman has caught his attention and this has made him question his feelings for you. He might want to try dating her to see if they are compatible.
- It’s you: He feels overwhelmed by your emotional neediness, or your smothering, domineering or overly jealous behaviour. Or perhaps he thinks you’re self-centred or too high maintenance.
- It’s him: There’s something about the relationship that’s draining him or making him feel insecure. Perhaps he can’t deal with the constant arguments, or the fact that you have many close guy friends.
“The relationship is, in a nutshell, just too much work for him,” Karla says. “This means that it has become emotionally exhausting or stressful, and he doesn’t like how he feels when he’s with you.”
He doesn’t want to break up – now what?
Whatever his reason for wanting space, Karla advises you to let him go. “You have to force yourself to give him the space he needs, and allow whatever happens after that to unravel naturally,” she explains. “When he is obviously pulling away, let him. Let him feel what it’s like to not have you in his life and to be completely off the radar. But, be warned, this is a very subtle dance that must be executed with confidence and precision.”
This means that you should not work on pulling him back towards you. While you are apart from each other, do not text or call him. Don’t stalk his social media accounts or ask your mutual friends about him. Simply let him be, and do what you can to move on with your life without him. If your guy feels that he cannot be without you, he will work on re-connecting with you. And when he’s back, it’s important to have an honest discussion about what you both want and where you would like the relationship to go. If he genuinely needed time apart because he was feeling overwhelmed, you should find out what was causing him to feel that way and work together on rectifying the problem.
If, on the other hand, he wanted time apart from you in order to date other women or see if someone else was better for him, then you should ask yourself if this is the kind of man you want to give your heart to. After all, who’s to say that he will not pull the same stunt if another woman he likes arrives on the scene again? He should also understand that, if you’re in a committed relationship, he can’t ask for a break as and when he wants, just so he can play the field. That kind of behaviour is not fair to you.
How much space and time are enough?
If your boyfriend is serious about wanting time apart from you, but has made it clear that he doesn’t want to break up for good, then talk about how much time is appropriate. He owes it to you to give you some kind of timeframe. If you’re not comfortable with the fact that he needs a whole month away and feel that breaking up would be better, let him know.
“Whatever your boyfriend’s reasons for wanting a break, try not to internalise your feelings. Don’t take it personally. Instead, just let him go,” says Karla. “But send him indirect messages that are counter to how he thinks you will react. In other words, if he stops calling or doesn’t return your calls, do not lean into or react to this.”
Karla adds that your man must feel inspired to want the relationship. You cannot force him to be with you. “If you’re behaving in ways that do not inspire him, then you must adjust your behaviour. For example, calling him all the time is not inspiring. Asking him if he’s mad at you is not inspiring. This is symbolic of holding on. If he’s trying to pull away, let him, even if it is excruciatingly difficult. Remember, holding on to a man who does not want to stay is like holding on to water. It is quite impossible.”